Friday, December 5, 2008

Meal of the Month: November

End of another month. Time for another Meal of the Month recap! Sorry for the delay, I know you’ve all been anxiously waiting. But hey, better late than never, right? Blame it on vacation.

So aside from my amazing New York trip earlier in the month (click here for the recap on meals from that trip!), I’ve had plenty of other really fine meals. Many in San Francisco, but many in Australia as well. From fun and casual meals with my dad and sister, to having the girls over for cheese and nibbles at my house (along with yummy crème fraiche ice cream!).

I also had the chance to eat at Poleng Lounge with my good friends Wendy and Mark (where Chef Tim Luym spoiled me!!), as well as eating at Baraka with JT, Troy and friends (where Chef Chad Newton continues to amaze me with his food.) I was lucky enough to have a homemade meal at my friend’s Sabine and Rohit’s house—where we feasted on braised short ribs and a pesto faro salad. Yum yum.

I enjoyed pizza at Beretta with two friends from out of town, as well as a delicious meal at Postrio with some of my favorite PR people from around the country! And that was just all in San Francisco.

In Australia, I had a delicious Italian meal overlooking the ocean, dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Melbourne (where Tobie Puttock is the executive chef), a delicious Thai dinner at Longrain, dinner on a historic tram, and an amazing lunch in Hunter Valley wine country. WOW!

So, from all of that, which is my Meal of the Month? Lunch at Rockpool restaurant in Sydney.

Neil Perry is a famous Australian chef, with restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. His Rockpool restaurant is in the Rocks neighborhood of Sydney, and is a beautiful spot, with a great open kitchen. I ducked in for a solo lunch (my traveling mate isn’t much of a foodie), and I settled in at a table with a great view of the kitchen. Lucky me, I was looking right into the pantry (or garde manger) station, which made me both so happy, and also sad and missing the Postrio kitchen.

In any case, I started with thinly sliced serrano ham, served with slices of pear. It was light and perfect. A great balance of salty and sweet.

I moved onto the fried fish over rice, served with a ginger and shallot sauce. Simple yet perfectly prepared.

All of the food I had was great. I wish I had a table full of friends with me so that we could have ordered the whole menu! But what really made my experience? Having a view into the kitchen. From where I was sitting, I could actually hear the chefs talking to one another. The first thing I noticed about this kitchen? It’s QUIET! They were working with their heads down. There was very little talking and interaction with each other. This was a serious kitchen.

What else did I notice? There was a flat screen TV mounted on the wall—and it was video footage into a kitchen. I looked closer, and I noticed it wasn’t the kitchen of the restaurant I was in. I asked the waiter, and he explained. It was looking into the kitchen of the Rockpool restaurant in Melbourne. And what were they seeing? Into the Rockpool restaurant in Sydney of course! At the time I thought this was absolutely one of the coolest things ever. (I still kind of do.) But when I was telling this to my friend Tim, he commented “Oh, like Thomas Keller’s kitchens.” Oh. Hmm. Guess Neil wasn’t the only one that had this idea. Well, until I make a visit to the French Laundry or Per Se, Neil did it first in my book.

I saw that they had three people working the pantry station, and from where I sat, I could see five working the line in the back. A smile quickly came to my face when I started hearing the sound of a ticket coming in. Oh how I had missed that sound! How I missed being in a restaurant and cooking at Postrio!

I saw one of the gals working the pantry line kind of picking on one of the other guys working the station. She kept looking up to see what he was doing, and I even saw her go over to him, and re-plate the salad he was working on. As I paid closer attention to their interaction, I could tell he was new.

As the lunch service came to an end, I was one of the remaining guests in the dining room. I could see the cooks begin to loosen up. Now they’d have a few hours to regroup and relax a little bit before dinner. I saw one of the cooks grab a clip board and went down a long list of what prep needed to be done before dinner. I saw deliveries come in. I saw laughter and cooks joking.

And I saw the gal talk to the new guy. She asked when he had started, where he was cooking before, how long had he been cooking, and on and on. I felt bad for him. I could relate. That was me. The newbie. Getting all of the questions. Not knowing what I was doing in the kitchen. Getting tested. I wanted to go and talk to him so badly. I could sympathize. As they were talking, I could see her warm up to him. At one point, I even heard her say, “It’s ok. It really is all just practice, you know?”

Taking all of this in, I realized why this slower down time was one of my favorite times of day in a restaurant. The calm before the storm. It also really made me miss the cooks and team at Postrio.

The other reason this special meal is my Meal of the Month? Because I met Chef Neil Perry. A very well known chef throughout Australia, I had read a lot about him before my trip. I knew he had a mini empire in Australia, and not expect him to be at the restaurant the day I was there.

Through my conversations with the manager and my server, they came to learn that I had come a very long way to eat at this restaurant. They had learned that I was a foodie, and had even spent a little bit of time cooking in a restaurant kitchen. When I asked whether or not they sold Chef Neil Perry’s cookbooks at the restaurants, the manager told me yes, and then leaned in, as if to tell me a secret. “Chef Perry is here today, he could autograph and personalize your book if you’d like.” Sold.

Not only did Chef Perry sign my book (and spell my name correctly!), he came out to talk to me. When he learned I was visiting from San Francisco, we launched into a long conversation about San Francisco restaurants. His favorites? Zuni Café and Quince. He was extremely kind, and interesting to talk to. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing what had brought me to his restaurant and about my eating experiences in Australia. He was truly a classy guy. And made this not only an amazing meal, but an amazing experience.

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